Viral video sharing app Douyin (known internationally as TikTok) has been among China’s most talked about social platforms of the past year or two. Yet amid all the hype, some are voicing doubts about viral video apps’ long-term prospects as China’s social video landscape undergoes future shifts.
Douyin’s popularity is Undeniable
Douyin’s popularity at present isn’t just in China—according to a recent Fortune article, one app analytics company ranks Douyin/TikTok as the third most downloaded app in the world in the first quarter of this year. Only WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger app received more downloads, while Facebook itself and Instagram trailed behind. Technode recently reported that Technode recently reported that downloads of the Douyin and TikTok apps had reached a combined 1.2 billion worldwide. That lofty figure excludes downloads from third-party Chinese Android stores, so Douyin’s total user base will be significantly higher.
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The buzz around Douyin isn’t just driven by user numbers, impressive as they are. A significant proportion of Douyin/TikTok users are Gen Zs, both in China and internationally. Naturally, brands have taken note, and many have gotten to work on developing Douyin-focused content strategies. The app’s global popularity is unprecedented for a Chinese social platform and has received the endorsement of approving profiles and how-to guides from international media including The New York Times and technology site The Verge.
The Problem with Viral Video Apps
However, Douyin’s growth is starting to plateau, and comparisons to the rise and fall of viral video apps in the West and live-streaming apps in China are unsettling. Elijah Whaley, CMO of PARKLU, says Vine had some of the same warning signs. He believes audience fatigue could similarly hobble Douyin. “Vine had a lot of issues, but in general, people got tired of Vine’s really short, viral-style videos,” Whaley said. “Viral video apps are time wasters, often offering little redeemable value. I just don’t think viral video apps fully feed the knowledge craving soul or the human storytelling psyche.”
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Until recently, Douyin videos were limited to a maximum length of one minute. However, the app now allows users to post videos up to five minutes long and a Douyin insider recently told us they are testing unlimited length videos. As well as addressing potential user exhaustion, Whaley says allowing for longer videos speaks to a deep-rooted human desire for videos of real substance. “It is extremely challenging to create a story arch in a 15-second video,” he said. “We innately crave stories. It’s extremely challenging to consistently create enthralling stories in 15 seconds.”
Algorithms used by Viral Video Apps
Douyin’s expectation may be that simply expanding the format’s parameters will invite an injection of fresh vitality and creativity. But will that be enough to sustain user interest? Whaley is somewhat doubtful. He believes the rapid-fire way Douyin serves up one video after another could ultimately prove a turn-off for users. Douyin’s AI-driven technology aims to learn users’ preferences in order to deliver an endless stream of content tailored to keep them hooked. Clever as that may be, Whaley says it’s contrived, though he acknowledges it’s a fun way to mindlessly consume content. “Douyin’s algorithm rewards viral videos in a force-feeding manner,” Whaley said. “But is it providing the same unique value of searching and discovering significant content?”
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These viral video seeking algorithms can also leave professional creators lacking well-deserved traffic. “The guy getting hit upside the head with a toaster is always going to get more views than the guy telling you how the universe was made. These algorithms can serve the worst part of ourselves,” says Whaley. Creators built Douyin into the viral video app it is today. Douyin did some great marketing, like aligning with Rap of China, but it was the professional content creators users stayed around to watch. Douyin has instituted policies, like requiring creators to sign with MCNs, which are generally not good for creators. “The vast majority of MCNs are predatory. The 70/30 profit split that most creators give to MCNs and giving up all rights to ownership of their content is villainous,” explains Whaley. Users don’t go on to Douyin to watch their family and friend’s videos, they go on to watch videos from wannabe KOLs and professional creators. To not do everything possible to serve the creator community could be a mistake and ironically it’s a mistake Vine made too.
Moving Beyond Viral Video Apps
Vine’s eventual failure doesn’t mean that Douyin is similarly doomed. Vine’s demise was hastened by specific problems that Douyin may not suffer from. First, Twitter bought Vine with great fanfare in late 2012, but never made a serious attempt to directly monetise the platform. Douyin has very encouraging monetisation strategies. Sales of virtual coins on both the Douyin and TikTok apps have created a revenue stream that has grown well over the past year. Revenue from virtual coin sales generated $9 million in May this year, a 500 per-cent increase year on year and over 20 per-cent higher than the previous month alone.
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Vine was never fully integrated into the Twitter platform, and that functional separation was mirrored offline in the companies’ organisational structure, with the teams running the respective services worked on opposite coasts (see The Verge’s post-mortem on Vine for more on this). In the platform’s final phase, high and frequent turnover among Vine’s senior management left the operation floundering and directionless.
PARKLU’s Whaley believes that Douyin can avoid Vine’s fate, but only if it evolves into a different type of platform from the one it is today. “[Douyin] created a truly viral formula and it attracted a lot of users fast,” Whaley said. “Now their challenge is to change because the current model isn’t sustainable. The app has to become ubiquitous. It must be the only place people think of turning when they want to watch a video. I believe that ubiquity is going to birth from the creator community. If they can shift away from quick-fix virality and truly support storytellers, journalists, and influencers they might just have this in the bag.”
So far, Douyin’s parent company ByteDance appears to be experimenting with a few strategies for expanding its ecosystem. After launching video chat app Duoshan earlier this year, which Tencent promptly removed from its app store, the company returned for another run in May, this time with Feiliao, or Flipchat, an instant messaging platform designed to help users connect and network over shared interests and hobbies.
Whaley says platforms like Xiaohongshu and Keep deliver more intrinsic niche value to users than viral video apps’ fervor-centred content. He believes Douyin’s future lies in delivering a more rounded experience that incorporates meaningful content, better search/tagging functions, and e-commerce features. “It should become China’s version of YouTube,” he said.